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Long in the tooth

He’ll give you the answer that you’ll … endorse?

Dear Word Detective: My local computer guru has labeled my three-year old computer “long in the tooth.” What is the source of this now seldom-used phrase? — Dick Stacy.

Oh boy. Three years old, eh? That’s a pretty good illustration of why “local computer guru” strikes me as one of the most ominous phrases in the English language, right up there with “Free Estimate” and “Your call is important to us.” A three-year old computer is not “long in the tooth” on my planet. I’m typing this on one that’s almost ten. But I may not a good judge of such things. I realized recently that I’ve been wearing the same belt every day for more than twenty years. Hey, it’s a nice belt. Well made, obviously.

“Long in the tooth” is, of course, a venerable English idiom meaning “showing its age,” “of advanced years,” or simply “old,” with strong implications of decrepitude. The earliest printed instance of the phrase found so far is from the 19th century, but it may be much older (“She was lean, and yellow, and long in the tooth; all the red and white in all the toyshops of London could not make a beauty of her,” WM Thackeray, 1852).

The source of “long in the tooth” was, fittingly, the primary mode of transport at that time, the humble horse. Fans of TV’s Greatest Sitcom Ever, Mister Ed, will remember that when Ed talked, his teeth were very prominent. (Some people say that Ed didn’t really talk, and in moving his mouth he was only trying to remove peanut butter that the TV crew had put there, but people who say that are joyless cynics.) The Wikipedia entry on Mister Ed is fascinating, by the way.

In any case, apparently it’s not all that easy to tell from just looking at a horse just how old the critter is. But when horses age, their gums recede, eventually to the point where the roots of Horsie’s teeth are visible, which makes the teeth themselves appear longer. Thus a horse visibly¬† “long in the tooth” would be judged to be very mature at least, and possibly quite old. So a method of judging the age of a horse, originally of interest only to horse-traders and racing touts, gave us the common expression “long in the tooth,” meaning “over the hill.”

Judging a horse’s age by prying open its mouth and looking at its teeth does seem a rather obscure source for such a popular figure of speech as “long in the tooth,” but that was not the only common saying born of the practice. If you happened to be given a horse as a gift, it was considered very rude and ungrateful to immediately take a close look at its teeth to judge its age, especially in the presence of the gift-giver. Thus as long ago as the 16th century the proverb “Never look a gift horse in the mouth” served as a general warning never to criticize or find fault with a gift or an occasion of good fortune (“It is a madness … to look a gift Horse in the Mouth,” 1707). As a figure of speech meaning “to show ingratitude,” “to look a gift horse in the mouth” was followed about 200 years later by an equally vivid phrase, “to bite the hand that feeds you.” I’ve always wondered if that latter saying might have been inspired by a resentful horse who was tired of having his mouth pried open.


Follow the bouncing barrel.

Dear Word Detective: We have a family tradition of reading aloud Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” every Christmas Eve. Each family member takes their turn at a stave. That is my point. To me, a “stave” is one of the carved wooden slats that make up a barrel. But our reproduction “Christmas Carol” is divided into five staves, so obviously in 1827 a “stave” meant something other than part of a barrel. Could you enlighten us? — Donald Wilkinson.

Reading Dickens on Christmas Eve sounds nice. Here at TWD World Headquarters we usually just chill out with a giant tub of popcorn and watch the Petticoat Junction marathon on the farm channel. Just kidding. I’m partial to “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” read by Dylan Thomas himself (available on YouTube, naturally). Someone actually made a movie of it in 1987 starring Denholm Elliot (also available on YouTube), but I haven’t watched it. I have my own imagination, thank you.

Prior to writing this column, I was unaware that Dickens himself had labeled the five sections of his story “staves,” a term usually applied to a verse or stanza of a poem or song, in keeping with the “carol” of the title. The origin of the word “stave” is simple, although slightly odd. “Stave” is a “back-formation” from the word “staves,” a back-formation being a word coined as a simpler, “implied” form of an existing form. “Staves,” in the 14th century, was actually the plural form of “staff” (much as “leaves” is the plural of “leaf”). There was no singular “stave;” the singular form of “staves” was already “staff.” But folks invented “stave,” and there it sits.

The word “staff” dates back to the Old English “staef,” from Germanic roots connoting “firmness” or “support.” Our English “staff” has developed literally dozens of meanings since it first appeared meaning “walking stick.” Interestingly (to me, anyway), “staff” in the sense of “office staff” probably comes from the short “staff” or baton carried by a military officer as a badge of authority, figuratively extended to the group of officers making up his entourage. Voila, staff meetings.

Being essentially the same word, “staff” and “stave” were frequently used interchangeably, usually in senses connoting either “support or structure” of some kind or measurement. “Staff” gradually outpaced “stave” in popularity, and the uses of “stave” today are more narrowly defined. The most common “staves” are the long, narrow, often curved strips of wood which, bound together by bands, form the sides of an old-fashioned barrel or tub.

In the 16th century, we began to use “staff” to mean “a line of verse” or “a set of lines or stanza in verse or song” by analogy of the long, narrow shape of the lines to a stick or pole. Similarly, the set of five parallel lines used in music notation came to be called a “staff” in the 17th century. The first sense (set of lines in verse or song) has since been entirely transferred to “stave,” while the music notation sense is still handled by both “staff” and “stave.”

The verb “to stave,” by the way, has two senses common today. The older is “to break up a cask or barrel” or, more generally, “to break a hole in” or “smash inward with great force.” This “smashing” sense gave us the nautical term of a boat’s hull being “stove” (past and participial form¬† of “stave”) on rocks or in a collision. The other sense of “to stave” is “to drive off, repel, or hold at bay using a staff or stave,” which we use today in a metaphorical sense of “ward off, prevent or delay” (“He had obtained an advance of money from Newbery to stave off some pressing debts.” 1849).

Hunker Down

Hunker hunker freezin’ hell.

Dear Word Detective: During the recent visit of the Polar Vortex to the US Midwest, I heard a TV weather-person advise us all to “hunker down in front of the fireplace” until the thermometer rises to a more reasonable reading. We don’t have a fireplace, but after dislodging the cat from the heating vent in the floor so I could stand on it, I began to wonder how one “hunkers down” anyway, and what kind of weird word “hunker” is. Was it just invented out of thin (presumably freezing) air, or does it have a real history? — Dave.

I’m gonna go ahead and assume that you were standing on the vent, not on the cat. Yeah, that Polar Vortex thing was fun, assuming your idea of fun is 17 below zero. If it happens again I’m moving to Guatemala. Since we don’t watch the TV news, it took me a while to realize that El Vortex (as it’s not known in Guatemala) is a real meteorological thing and not just more fear-hooey. Seriously, those people deliberately make their weather maps look like posters for slasher movies.

“Hunker” is indeed a “real” word, with a real history, and more than one meaning. If you’ve ever wondered exactly how one “hunkers” in the literal sense, the Oxford English Dictionary has some helpful instructions in their definition (apparently written in 1899, though the procedure seems timeless): “To squat, with the haunches, knees, and ankles acutely bent, so as to bring the hams near the heels, and throw the whole weight upon the fore part of the feet.” (The “hams” mentioned there, by the way, are the backs of your thighs just above your knees; “ham” meat is the equivalent part of a pig.) So “to hunker” just means “to squat” all the way down, a posture that may be uncomfortable but also makes you a smaller target in situations where that is desirable.

I suppose it’s possible that the weather-person was seriously suggesting that you literally crouch in front of the fireplace; the temptation to order viewers to do silly things must be nearly irresistible for people on TV. But it’s more likely that “hunker down” was intended in its more common figurative sense of “stay indoors, marshal your resources, stockpile doughnuts, etc.” In non-emergency contexts, “hunker down” is also used as a synonym of “buckle down,” i.e., to settle in and concentrate on finishing an onerous task (“Larry finally hunkered down and worked on his term paper for the entire weekend”). “Buckle down,” by the way, dates to the mid-19th century, and comes from the 16th century “to buckle oneself,” originally meaning to literally strap on armor before a battle.

The exact source of “hunker” is, alas, uncertain. It’s probably related to the Old Norse “huka,” to crouch, with relatives in Middle Dutch, Middle Low German and the modern German “hocken,” meaning “to sit on one’s hams.” Although the specific phrase “hunker down” is apparently a US invention, first appearing in print in 1902, “hunker” by itself was originally Scots, first appearing in print in 1720.